In Italy, the Palio di Asti predates the more famous Palio di Siena by about 400 years, having run almost every year since the 13th century. Photographer Ben Pipe heard that the Palio di Asti as was more accessible, more intimate than the Palio di Siena, and on impulse, he flew out for a long weekend in late summer.
As darkness falls on the mediaeval old town of Asti on a summer evening, crowds begin to gather in San Secondo square. Families finish up the last of their pizza, children jostle for position, judges take their seats, and drums and trumpets echo round the square. This is the Palio of the flag-wavers; precursor to the races. Marching bands and Flag-wavers representing the neighbourhoods of Asti demonstrate their choreographed flag skills and flourish their team colours with skill, strength and vigour.
The final race will be on Sunday and on Saturday, the horse riders run trials, familiarising themselves with the course. Every bit as interesting as the horseracing is the fascinating procession of over 1200 people in authentic medieval costume through the streets of Asti, accompanied by marching bands. There are knights in armour, beautiful maidens, ornate carriages, prisoners in penance, oxcarts and priests. They make their way from the cathedral to the race track in Piazza Alfieri, performing a lap of the course before becoming spectators.
The horse race sees 21 thoroughbred horses in competition, each representing different districts of Asti. They race in three heats on Sunday, with the first three from each heat making up the final nine to race in the grand finale. Since the horses start from behind a rope rather than stalls as on a racetrack, getting a race underway can be an event in itself. The starter encourages the riders into position and doesn’t give the order until everyone is lined up, and it can take up to 20 minutes per race for the riders to jostle and cajole their mounts into position. Another significant difference from modern horseracing is that the riders are bareback, and without a saddle, the jockeys are more likely to suffer a painful fall to the cobbles. At the edge of the track, the energy, power and speed of the horses is palpable as they fly around the triangular course, pelting photographers and spectators with a flurry of dirt, dust and thunderous noise.
In the final, Andrea Mari wins the race and takes the prize: The Palio; a sheet of cloth placed at the finishing post. He is carried on the shoulders of jubilant Santa Caterina fans through the streets of Asti to San Secondo square, where the festivities began on Friday evening and will continue into Sunday night.